How the god­fa­thers of punk kept the faith

New York­ers Alan Vega and Marty Rev were punks be­fore punk was in­vented, known in the ’70s for their vi­o­lent gigs and rag­ing synth rock. Now they’re hip again, with Bono, REM and Ra­dio­head cit­ing them as in­flu­ences

The Jewish Chronicle - - Judaism - BY PAUL LESTER

YOU MAY NOT have heard of Amer­i­can duo Sui­cide, but you will have heard of the groups they in­flu­enced. Depeche Mode, N e w O r d e r , Moby, Ra­dio­head — al­most ev­ery techno or in­dus­trial act, or rock band that uses syn­the­sis­ers, has cited Sui­cide as an in­flu­ence.

Bono said U2 were lis­ten­ing to Sui­cide’s song Cheree when they wrote With Or Without You. Bruce Spring­steen, their early sup­porter and friend, has recorded a cover ver­sion of their song Dream Baby Dream. Sui­cide’s epony­mous 1977 de­but al­bum has been hailed as “the Sgt Pep­per of elec­tron­ica”, while REM have de­scribed them as “the true sound of New York”.

And their con­fronta­tional per­for­mances, which of­ten re­sulted in or­gies of vi­o­lence and de­struc­tion, led Joe Strum­mer, front­man of The Clash, to call vo­cal­ist Alan Vega “one of the bravest men I have ever seen on a stage”.

But they were not al­ways this highly re­garded. “Even the punks didn’t like Sui­cide,” says Vega to­day, his thick ac­cent closer to Jackie Ma­son than a Bronx hood­lum. “We were the ul­ti­mate punks be­cause even the punks hated us.”

Did he and mu­si­cal part­ner Marty Rev rel­ish their ul­ti­mate pariah sta­tus, be­ing spat at and hav­ing ev­ery­thing from bot­tles to axes hurled at them?

“Well, it made it dif­fi­cult to get gigs be­cause there would be ri­ots ev­ery time. At one gig in the Hague, the po­lice sprayed the the­atre with tear­gas. At an­other in France I got punched on the nose and Marty had to fight off stage in­vaders with his spare hand.

“We had a rep­u­ta­tion as the band every­one loved to hate, and I kind of en­joyed that. But there were times when we thought we were in­sane. It al­most pushed me to­wards a ner­vous break­down. We con­fronted and chal­lenged the au­di­ence. We weren’t en­ter­tain­ers — it wasn’t an es­cape from peo­ple’s prob­lems.”

Vega draws a shock­ing par­al­lel be­tween the au­ral as­sault of Sui­cide at their con­fronta­tional ’70s peak — Rev’s ear-pun­ish­ing key­board drones and Vega’s blood­cur­dling arse­nal of yelps and screams — and the dark­est pe­riod in Jewish his­tory. “When the Jews were shipped off to the con­cen­tra­tion camps, to Dachau, Auschwitz or Tre­blinka, they would ar­rive and there would be a beau­ti­ful sta­tion and they looked like quite nice places. But then they’d walk past the nicely painted walls through a door right into hell. And that’s ex­actly what Marty and I were do­ing with Sui­cide: we were giv­ing them Tre­blinka. The au­di­ence would walk through the door of the venue and they’d be in hell. We were an­gry and we wanted to wake peo­ple up. The Viet­nam War was rag­ing, Nixon — who I hated — was in charge and the whole coun­try was col­laps­ing. We were say­ing: ‘Wake up, man! You’ve got to change this shit!’”

De­spite their torn clothes, their choice of band name and the in­di­vid­ual aliases they as­sumed in the early days — Nasty Cut and Marty Ma­niac — Vega and Rev were not your av­er­age semi-lit­er­ate, car­toon­ni­hilist delin­quents propos­ing chaos for its own sake: there was a vast dif­fer­ence be­tween Sid Vi­cious and Sui­cide.

Vega, born Alan Ber­mowitz in 1938, was brought up in a poor blue-col­lar house­hold by his mother and di­a­mond-set­ter im­mi­grant fa­ther. “They were from an­other planet,” he says. “For­tu­nately they didn’t ever get to see me per­form, oth­er­wise they would have put me in a men­tal hospi­tal.”

He de­scribes him­self as a loner who ini­tially stud­ied physics and art at Brook­lyn Col­lege be­fore pur­su­ing a ca­reer mak­ing light sculp­tures at some of the most pres­ti­gious art gal­leries in New York.

Rev, real name Martin Re­verby, was an avant-garde jazz buff study­ing clas­si­cal mu­sic at New York Uni­ver­sity who got ex­pelled for re­fus­ing to toe the line. Vega re­mem­bers the day in 1971 when Rev turned up at the Project of Liv­ing Artists, an artists’ space he was manag­ing in Lower Man­hat­tan.

“He was a strange-looking Jewish guy with bushy hair like an afro and a blue tur­tle-neck who sat down on the floor and started tap­ping th­ese pen­cils. He was out there — the first guy to play jazz rock on key­boards, long be­fore Weather Re­port,” he mar­vels, com­par­ing their meet­ing to those epoch-mak­ing first en­coun­ters be­tween Keith Richards and Mick Jag­ger and Len­non and McCart­ney. “It was,” he says, “a mir­a­cle.”

Vega and Rev be­came part of a mu­sic New York scene densely pop­u­lated with Jews, in­clud­ing Joey Ra­mone, Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group, Richard Hell of the Voidoids and Chris Stein of Blondie. Vega even jok­ingly refers to the leg­endary club CBGBs where all those bands played as “one big syn­a­gogue”.

As Sui­cide, they cre­ated a new type of elec­tronic rock’n’roll — they were a scifi Sex Pis­tols, be­fore the Pis­tols ex­isted. Thep­rob­lemwas,no­bodyknewwhatto make of them or their gui­tar-, bass- and drums-free line-up. In fact, they were the pro­to­type synth-duo, the model for Soft Cell, Pet Shop Boys and the rest, with the lugubri­ous key­boardist and gre­gar­i­ous front­man.

“If we were the fu­ture, it was a fu­ture that no­body wanted,” ad­mits Rev, who was once ap­proached by the Pis­tols’ man­ager Malcolm McLaren to form a boy-girl out­fit with Blondie’s Debbie Harry. “There was noth­ing about us that was fa­mil­iar.”

Rev is as thought­ful as Sui­cide’s mu­sic is vis­ceral. Of his re­li­gious be­liefs, he says: “I can’t box my­self into any one sys­tem of prac­tice or rit­u­alised thought for very long.” And he de­scribes his up­bring­ing as “so­cial-ori­ented hu­man­i­tar­i­an­ism; non-re­li­gious bor­der­ing on ag­nos­tic”. He ad­mits, how­ever, that he later “stud­ied in-depth an­cient He­brew texts for a pe­riod of years”. He con­cedes that he “can’t imag­ine liv­ing in a world where there isn’t a God”. He ad­mires non-be­liev­ers but can­not quite make that leap him­self. “Hav­ing that sense of awe about the uni­verse, which is what re­li­gion is to me, I won­der how they can live without that. It’s like love — it doesn’t have to be real or true, but to live without it… It’s hard enough to get up in the morn­ing as it is.”

Vega is sim­i­larly am­biva­lent. He al­ludes to the “mirac­u­lous” na­ture of his ca­reer with Sui­cide and fate­ful meet­ing with Rev, beg­ging the ques­tion — does he be­lieve in a higher power? “I dis­trust the name ‘God’ but, yes, I do be­lieve in a higher power,” he says. He adds that he shares the ra­tio­nal­ist stance of Spinoza, the 17th-cen­tury Jewish philoso­pher and “pan­the­ist the­olo­gian”. “God is in all of us,” he says, be­fore de­cid­ing: “There is an im­mense power. There has to be.”

Af­ter years of chang­ing his back-story, telling jour­nal­ists his mother was Catholic, he is fi­nally proud of his roots. “I made that up to fuel the myth, be­cause re­ally, my whole life has been a myth,” he says. Now he can come clean. “It’s funny, but I’ll never stop feel­ing Jewish, no mat­ter how much I might talk my way out of it. I’m very proud to be part of this tra­di­tion. It’s brought me a lot of knowl­edge.”

He is equally proud of Sui­cide and flat­tered by the at­ten­tion of mu­si­cian-fans — artists as var­ied as Spring­steen, Nick Cave, Pri­mal Scream and Ju­lian Cope are lined up to release cover ver­sions of Sui­cide clas­sics ev­ery month from now un­til 2010. Even Amy Wine­house is ap­par­ently keen to get in­volved.

“There’s an au­then­tic­ity to our mu­sic,” he con­sid­ers. “It’s coun­try ’n’ east­ern mu­sic, or New York City blues. I some­times call it ‘Two Jews’ Blues’. Re­ally, though, we’re our own cat­e­gory. Peo­ple al­ways say: ‘You’re too much in the fu­ture.’ And I tell them: ‘No, you’re too much in the past.’” To mark Alan Vega’s 70th birth­day, blast­first­petite is re­leas­ing monthly lim­ited-edi­tion 10-inch vinyl sin­gles fea­tur­ing ver­sions of Sui­cide songs, start­ing this month

Marty Rev ( left) and Alan Vega, aka Sui­cide. Vega de­scribes their meet­ing in 1971 as a “mir­a­cle”

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